Talking Movies

February 24, 2018

A Bluffer’s Guide to Phantom Thread

Life is too short to watch the films nominated for the Oscars, but how else can one join in on conversations about the films nominated for the Oscars? Fear not, for here is your manual for being in the know.

Not having seen Phantom Thread should not stop you indulging in in-jokes about it, or making obscure references to scenes to cut out from the chatter people who also haven’t seen it, but haven’t read this piece either. There are three obscure things you simply must do. You must say, “Ah Fitzrovia, all shot on location there, as you recognised I’m sure” and then sigh wistfully, leaving your listeners discomfited at their lack of Old London chic. You must praise Brian Gleeson’s upper-crust English accent, and compare it to Day-Lewis’ cut-glass accent in 1985’s A Room with a View. You must impress upon people the extravagance of Paul Thomas Anderson hiring a 1950s red London double-decker bus for an entire day, only to drive it past a window, out of focus in the background of a shot, for two seconds; and then crush them by saying “Ah, yes, but it is indispensable. Phantom Thread isn’t just set in the 1950s, in that scene for those seconds it embodies the 1950s.”

Now then, quotable quotes; some of which are damned hard to work naturally into a conversation unless you find yourself in a kitchen or eating breakfast. If you do find yourself near some food, clatter the cutlery about, and make a noisy show of scraping your knife on toast; and then mutter “Entirely too much activity at breakfast” or “It’s like you rode a horse across the room” with a knowing wink. To completely dispel any doubt that you have no idea what you’re actually referencing then deadpan very seriously, “If his breakfast gets upset he finds it very hard to recover for the rest of the day.” To chide someone, shush them away, and then bark “The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me”. To exit in high dudgeon, say “There is an air of quiet death about this house, and I do not like how it smells”. If all this is too much to remember you could just offer to cook someone your famous mushroom omelette and then degenerate into helpless laughter.

So far so good, but you can layer your faux familiarity further. You should comment loudly on the omnipresence of Jonny Greenwood’s score and say that it puts one in mind of Shostakovich, but then of course the driving strings of Plainview’s theme in There Will Be Blood owed much to the 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, allegedly depicting Stalin’s ruthless energy. And then add in that a new note struck by Greenwood this time was the gorgeous piano cues, reminiscent of Debussy at his most gorgeous and minimal. As a feint you can feign ignorance if you think people are getting suspicious, note that you don’t fully (feign ignorance, never admit to ignorance) understand the purpose of the Clockwork Orange reference when Daniel Day-Lewis drives in the countryside at night. But then trump these sceptics by saying that this move’s ‘milkshake scene’ is surely the ‘asparagus scene’. Compare it to Pinter, compare it to Mamet, compare it to Le Carre as a joke because Day-Lewis raves about spies, and then seem to struggle to remember the words “You know that I like my asparagus cooked in butter and salt, yet you have cooked it in oil. Were the circumstances different I might be able to pretend to like it, but as they are I’m simply admiring my own gallantry for eating it in the way you prepared it.”

Now you are in the know. Go forth and bluster.

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January 20, 2015

The Walworth Farce

The Olympia Theatre stages its second star-studded Enda Walsh play in six months as the Gleeson family throw themselves into an extravaganza of physical theatre.

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The play opens with proud Corkman Dinny (Brendan Gleeson) in the living room, matching a hideous yellow tie to his hideous blue suit. In the bathroom of their quietly disintegrating London flat son Blake (Domhnall Gleeson) is shaving his legs. They are both preparing for their day while Dinny’s other son Sean (Brian Gleeson) is out shopping. Once Sean is back, wigs and dresses can be donned, and a ritual can begin: Dinny relates the story of his mother’s funeral and the reading of her will. His sons stand in for all other characters while he plays himself; possibly the sincerity of his interpretation is the reason that every day he wins the acting trophy. But today Sean has stage-managed badly, bringing home a sausage. “It’s just not working without the chicken,” laments Dinny – which made me think  of “This chicken is the only real thing here, so I’m going to work with it” – but not only has Sean not supplied the needful props, he’s also accidentally invited an audience…

The Walworth Farce becomes an acting showcase for the Gleesons. Brendan’s charisma is such that he’s able to maintain our sympathy as the overbearing Dinny, despite some horrendous physical abuse where slapstick moments result in real injuries. Brian is the straight man, performing the part of Dinny’s put-upon brother, while in reality he is the quiet, defeated son; horrified at having bungled the shopping, but also excited by the prospect of escaping this life. Domhnall is remarkable, his physicality encompasses sitting with his leg wrapped behind his head, and playing three female characters with three distinct voices (and three different wigs, and, thanks to Velcro, outfits); running from place to place to carry on conversations with himself in different guises. Aside from the manic comedy he also registers the fear Dinny has instilled in his boys of dangerous London – dead bodies waiting to rise up from the footpaths and grab you – and resentful fury when their routine is interrupted by frightfully enthusiastic Tesco assistant Hayley (Leona Allen), luring away Sean.

It’s odd seeing this 2006 play after 2014’s Ballyturk. In both plays manic enacting of absurdist small-town bickering is interrupted by a stranger. Hayley is initially amused, then bored, and finally terrified by the ritual – and, unlike Ballyturk, which remains defiantly oblique, we know that the trio perform the routine because Dinny needs to in order to function; so that her attempts to take Sean away are fraught with danger for both herself and Sean. Walworth is less abstract than Ballyturk. Paul Keogan brightly lights the performance, while reality is subdued and sinister. Alice Power’s set of half-shown walls convincingly depicts a decaying flat: a bathroom with a hole in the wall, a bedroom with a bunk-bed and a ‘dining room’ sign with a coffin laid over two chairs, a kitchen, a sitting room with a curious wheelchair. Yet, when a knife appears, your stomach knots in dread, and you realise that there is no rational way to predict where, or in whom, it will end up by the curtain.

Director Sean Foley’s track record in exuberant, slapstick comedy is a perfect match for Walsh’s mania, but he also brings out these trapped players’ tender desperation, and the almost Pinterish edge that Hayley’s arrival brings to this family dynamic.

4/5

The Walworth Farce continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until the 8th of February.

March 6, 2014

The Stag

Sherlock star Andrew Scott returns home to play the hapless best man forced to organise a last-minute stag party which quickly descends into embarrassing chaos.

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Trinity lecturer and enthusiastic hill-walker Davin (Scott) is best man for dweebish stage-designer Fionan (Hugh O’Conor), who is marrying Davin’s ex-girlfriend Ruth (Amy Huberman). Fionan doesn’t particularly want to have a stag party, but Ruth instructs Davin that he must organise one, after Fionan unnervingly expresses interest in attending her hen party. And so Davin rounds up depressed businessman Simon (Brian Gleeson), Fionan’s gay younger brother Kevin (Michael Legge), and Kevin’s drug-addled boyfriend Kevin (Andrew Bennett), for an arduous mountaineering weekend – the one thing, alongside carefully screened phone calls, guaranteed to ensure the absence of Ruth’s deranged brother The Machine (Peter McDonald). Or so they think… The Machine arrives and instantly sets about destroying any veneer of respectability with crude and cruel nicknames and putdowns, wanton property destruction, vandalism of heritage sites, involuntary electrocution, and simply endless drug-fuelled public nudity.

I loathed Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock, so when I say the stars this film receives are purely for his performance, that’s something. Davin was fatally wounded by Ruth’s rejection, and having to smile thru her wedding is a cruel twist of the knife. Arguing with Fionan (purportedly about The Sopranos) on how Fionan always takes ownership of things Davin liked first has a subtext obvious to anyone but the characters, and Scott’s later rendition of ‘Raglan Road’ has a stunning emotional charge. But I’m praising a serious arc in an intended raucous comedy because The Stag is both juvenile and unfunny. McDonald co-wrote his ‘hilarious’ role, which the brothers McDonagh might have rendered funny, but which here flails about desperately as McDonald’s accent hits Ireland, England, America and New Zealand – questing for the most bombastically macho line-reading of every line.

Co-writer and director John Butler has a resume of sketch comedy and short films. His feature debut ticks all the clichés of predictable pay-offs and tidy arcs, even appropriating Little Miss Sunshine’s feel-good subversive ending to allow The Machine ‘solve’ the recession. There are no genuinely funny sequences, but many painfully extended ones – to wit, the nudity. The Stag is littered with snide gay jokes, but because Fionan’s father (John Kavanagh) is surprisingly condemned by The Machine for homophobia, that’s okay, right? Well, no, because Kavanagh would also be unlikely to approve if his son brought home a drug-using woman twice his age… Such inconsistencies make you wonder: can one write an asinine script, then inject structural trickery to achieve a closing group rainbow hug, and so, implausibly, secure Film Board funding by dint of one’s impeccable political zeitgeist surfing?

The Stag tragically wastes a cadre of talented Irish actors who are left mugging like Amy Huberman while the audience remembers having been on funnier stags than this one.

1.5/5

November 12, 2010

The Silver Tassie

Druid’s towering production of Sean O’Casey’s 1928 play was a triumph that should re-instate it in the Irish canon and was surely the apex of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

This was the play that infamously saw O’Casey sever his ties with the Abbey after Yeats rejected it – because O’Casey had not fought in WWI. O’Casey’s justly caustic retort, “Was GB Shaw present when St Joan made the attack that relieved Orleans? And someone, I think, wrote a poem about Tir na nOg, who never took a header into the Land of Youth”, obscured that, behind his bizarre hang-up regarding Art and WWI, Yeats’ bluster was probably hiding sheer panic at how badly such a mammoth production would expose his Abbey’s limited resources. And it is a mammoth production as O’Casey uses 19 actors and the 4 Acts beloved of Chekhov but now out of vogue to stage a dazzling array of situations.

The play opens in the archetypal O’Casey setting of a Dublin tenement, with neighbours intruding all the time on a customary self-deluding male double-act -Simon Norton (John Olohan) and Sylvester Heegan (Eamon Morrissey). Syl is quite possibly the most useless father in all O’Casey, and that’s saying something. He is awaiting the return of his son Harry’s football team from their championship game before the entire squad returns to the Western front. The comedy, however, is more abrasive than the endlessly performed Dublin trilogy. Simon and Syl are upbraided by Harry’s jilted girlfriend Susie Monican (Clare Dunne), who has become an evangelical, while their neighbour upstairs Mrs Foran (Derbhle Crotty) cooks in their flat to avoid her husband Teddy (Liam Carney), who she’s desperate to get rid of back to the front. He’s none too happy about this and, being a wife-beater, knocks a bit of the roof down onto the stage in his rage. No one really cares about him smashing her crockery, or giving her a bleeding cut under her eye, just as they didn’t care about her steak burning while they recounted Harry’s heroic drunken boxing exploits. They do care about Teddy appearing downstairs to menace them with a hatchet… Luckily for them the team arrives with the titular trophy won by Harry’s goal. Harry’s new girlfriend Jessie Taite (Aoife Duffin) taunts Susie with PDA of a suspiciously blatant nature for 1914, before Harry’s boasting in almost Syngean language of the game explodes into a musical number which ends with the team in uniform marching out. The 10 minute intermission is filled with groaning and then sulphurous dry ice floats across the audience in the Gaiety. What are they building back there? France…?

The curtain opens to reveal not France but billowing dry ice. Somewhere inside this fog is a green light, and suddenly we can see that a gun turret is trundling out from the side of the stage and over the front resting above the audience and pointed at them. The entire stage is taken up with an enormous tank. A man is tied to it by both arms on the right, and at the top of a ladder on the left Aaron Monaghan’s Harry sits looking like a character from Apocalypse Now with green camouflage face-paint and a red cross daubed on his chest. He begins to quote the ‘dry bones’ passage from Ezekiel and the soldiers beneath him rise up and dance. Having recently fallen in love with Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class I was delighted by these anti-musical numbers coming thick and fast, alternated with not-so-straightforward dialogue scenes with Simon and Syl, out of their bowler hats, as officers and a wonderful Bush Moukarzel as their cowardly superior, who complains in plummy tones about not being allowed to plunge into the action while giving every appearance of being terrified of even moderately loud noises. Pretty nurses arrive in carrying stretchers and lay down their burdens for a chanted lament, as the truth of Declan Kiberd’s observation that “the men’s chants attain an intensity reminiscent of Eliot’s religious poetry” becomes obvious. Everything ends in a panic as the Germans break through the line. The soldiers chant ‘to the guns, to the guns’, and they shin up the ladder on the stage-filling tank which then starts to move, towards the audience, before an almighty bang stops it and the curtain drops for the interval. Francis O’Connor’s set design is thus quite literally show-stopping and by far one of the most impressive sets I’ve ever seen. This act was the lightning rod for hostile commentary in the 1920s but I saw Journey’s End last year and was struck by how it had been utterly destroyed by Blackadder Goes Forth. The working-class characters as mere comic relief and the overall feel of self-pitying public-school tragedy felt antiquated, a time-capsule of a very different way of looking at the war. The Silver Tassie, by contrast, feels so modern in sensibility, so cynical and blackly comic, that if Stephen Fry’s Colonel were to pop up in this second act he wouldn’t be out of place at all. Its violent non-naturalism, especially after the revolution in British theatre in the 1960s, seems not only perfectly reasonable but also a more appropriate response to the horrors of the trenches than RC Sheriff’s stiff-upper lip officers’ quarters complete with servants.

Act three opens in an absurdist hospital. Absurdist, because all the characters from the opening act are here, for no discernible reason… Harry is in a wheelchair with crippled legs that will obviously never kick a football again. Susie has swapped evangelicalism for nursing and is now doing some serious social-climbing as she tries to impress the English doctor, leading to a hilariously scrambled accent which ranges from Gardiner Street to Grosvenor Square within a single sentence. This is plausible enough, but why on earth are Simon and Syl in hospital, still wearing bowler hats over their hospital gowns? Syl is in for an unspecified operation (minor to the point of trivial), while Simon appears to be merely keeping him company, but why are they in a military hospital and are we in Ireland or England? O’Casey gleefully doesn’t care, and neither should you. What you should care about is how quickly Harry the hero is abandoned once he’s wounded. Jessie isn’t visiting him and Susie’s pity is unbearable especially as she will never take him back now an English doctor is in her sights. Teddy makes an appearance, blind, and thus totally dependent on his now all-powerful wife. His honest comments about the minimal chances of Harry walking again after a spinal injury provide the blackest of comedy in this cruel scenario. Finally Brian Gleeson’s Barney arrives, he has an arm in a sling and it becomes obvious that Jessie has abandoned the maimed Harry for the unscathed Barney.

And so O’Casey roars into the final action at the Avondale football club. Another room visible behind the room on-stage presents us with merry dancing on the far side of the divide, while the audience is cut off from it, like the casualties of the war, who engage in desperate boozing on this side of the divide. Harry has no place anymore in this club for which he won the Silver Tassie, just as the wounded soldiers have no place in the world they fought for. Their attempts to remain in that world only discomfort it, exemplified by Teddy’s bandages being replaced by a face-mask with painted-on eyes which are incredibly disturbing. There is some incredibly funny slapstick comedy amidst this bitter tragedy with Simon, Syl and Mrs Foran attempting to answer a new-fangled telephone device, but O’Casey does not pull his emotional punches. Harry’s bitter attacks on Barney reveal Jessie to be as promiscuous as we suspected, Susie has become firmly attached to the English doctor and wishes Harry would leave, while when Harry finally storms off in his wheel-chair with his mother (Ruth Hegarty) following him at the end his once proud father Syl remains behind to enjoy the party. The ending speech of Harry to Teddy seems to offer some sort of Chekhovian wisdom like the closing speech of Three Sisters, but O’Casey has no intention of ending with anything approaching a noble sentiment. Instead Mrs Foran comes on-stage again, to get another bottle of booze, and falls down repeatedly while trying to open it before passing out drunk for the ultimate of low comedy endings.

This is a play which seems to occupy a central but largely unheralded place in the Irish dramatic tradition. The comedy double-act in their bowler hats anticipate the hyper-articulate sardonic tramps of Beckett and are granted routines as funny as their contemporaries Laurel & Hardy, while, as fellow academic Graham Price pointed out to me, the closing exit by the two crippled soldiers recalls the abrasive end of Synge’s Playboy with the two injured Mahons leaving mediocrity behind to strike out for a more heroic world. But O’Casey’s decision to leave us not even with a Pegeen Mike weeping but instead with a falling-down-drunk woman is a kick in the teeth for all but the most Schopenhauerian of audiences. It is little wonder Yeats preferred the Dublin trilogy but this incredibly funny but bleak play is more accomplished dramatically.

Garry Hynes’ direction creates theatrical magic yet again and demonstrates that Sean O’Casey’s forgotten play is arguably his masterpiece.

5/5

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